PV Sindhu, Pooja Rani and Atanu Das came up a little short. (Getty Images) PREMIUM
PV Sindhu, Pooja Rani and Atanu Das came up a little short. (Getty Images)

Tokyo 2020: Top guns falter and then fade

  • One by one, each of India’s top guns faltered and then faded, followed by that all-too-familiar sinking feeling that tells the story of India at the Games.
By Avishek Roy, Tokyo
UPDATED ON AUG 02, 2021 08:28 AM IST

It had the promise of being one of India’s finest days at the Olympics.

Instead, one by one, each of India’s top guns faltered and then faded, followed by that all-too-familiar sinking feeling that tells the story of India at the Games.

There was gloom under the bright sun at Yumenoshima Archery Park. Atanu Das’s win over 2012 London gold medallist South Korean Oh Jin Hyek on Thursday had raised immense expectations, but that doused as he succumbed to Japan’s Takaharu Furukawa on Saturday without much of a fight.

It was immediately followed by a disastrous and inexplicable exit of the world’s No 1 flyweight boxer, Amit Panghal, in his very first fight in Tokyo.

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A few hours later, Pooja Rani, one win away from a medal in the middleweight category, was denied that triumph, outclassed by China’s Li Qian in the quarterfinals.

Even as an inconsolable Rani left the ring, PV Sindhu, the 2016 Rio silver medallist, was going down to a masterclass from Tai Tzu Ying in the women’s singles semi-finals. The 26-year-old, unlike the others, will love to fight another day when she plays for bronze against China’s He Bingjiao on Sunday.

Somewhere in between, Anjum Moudgil fell out of contention in the 50m rifle 3-position qualification, slipping below the top eight in the standing stage to finish 15th. Tejaswini Sawant, India's second entry, ended 33rd to be eliminated.

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There were two bright spots. The women’s hockey team somehow kept their hopes afloat in the morning with a scrappy 4-3 win over South Africa. Later, after Ireland lost to Great Britain, India found themselves in the quarterfinals for the first time at the Olympics. Over at Tokyo’s national stadium, discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur threw 64m in the qualifiers, the second best throw of the day, to enter the final in style.

For Panghal and Sindhu, it was not just the losses but the manner in which they came that was difficult to explain.

Sindhu, so attacking and skillful in her straight games victory over Akane Yamaguchi in the quarters on Thursday, did not push the pace against Tai Tzu, squandered a big lead in the first game and then got outplayed in the second.

Was it a meltdown?

That question hung even larger over Panghal. The world championship finalist and Asian Games champion was his normal self in the first round against Colombia’s Yuberjen Herney Martinez Rivas at the Kokugikan Arena in their round of 16 match. He ducked and weaved out of Rivas’s range and landed fast, accurate, punches of his own. He was moving fast, controlling the ring. The judges were 4-1 in Panghal’s favour at the end of the round. In the next two rounds, everything fell apart for the 25-year-old from Haryana. He ducked and weaved but got caught by some solid punches to the head and the body. In return, Panghal did not have much to offer. His movement had become sluggish. His attacks became more and more intermittent. By the third round it was as if a different boxer was in the ring, one who had run a half-marathon just before a fight. Panghal’s arms were frozen, his body slouched, and all he could do was try and pedal away from the barrage of punches coming his way from Rivas, who had immediately sensed the difference and was in full explosive mode. When Panghal found the will to throw a punch, it was slow and wayward.

Rivas rained upper cuts, hooks and body punches, dominating a boxer who had beaten the best in the world in the last three years to such an extent that one of the five judges even counted the third round 10-8 in Rivas’s favour.

The Colombian is a Rio Olympics silver medallist in light flyweight but Panghal and Rivas’s paths have never crossed in competition.

Panghal left the arena in a hurry, his face grim, without speaking to the press.

But Panghal sparred with Rivas in Italy this year during India’s build-up to the Olympics. Panghal also fought in a series of tournaments leading up to the Olympics, trained abroad and looked in good shape.

Panghal’s typical game of counter – hitting overhead shots and quickly slipping out of the zone--worked in the first round. He is generally slow to start with, so the first round going in Panghal’s favour was an advantage.

The strategy was to not stay close to Rivas, score and move away. Panghal was caught in the firing line of Rivas for far too long in the second and third rounds. The Colombian ripped him apart with his combinations and brutal upper cuts.

Did Panghal’s pre-bout preparation go wrong?

“It's not necessary to put too much power and too much energy,” said India’s boxing high performance director Santiago Nieva. “He (Panghal) did that. In some moments, he couldn't move and stayed inside and he didn't have the energy to respond.”

The coaching staff said that Panghal told them he felt his energy levels suddenly dip during the fight and that he was unable to handle the intensity.

Nieva said that in their extended training sessions in Italy before coming in to Tokyo, Panghal and Rivas had sparred multiple times.

“The first time Amit sparred with him was similar to this,” Nieva said. “Then he improved in the next sparring. In the last sparring he did with the Colombian, he won two rounds. I’ve never seen him tire like this. The truth is Amit had a difficult time today.”

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